Postcards from the Edge; or, On Reading Wiman’s My Bright Abyss

I have been making my way slowly through Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. Slowly because it is tough stuff, both the — what should I call it? theology? the study of his own faith/God/self-in-God?, and the intensity of it: a dying man sending dispatches from the edge.

Diagnosed with a rare and fitful disease, Wiman has been dragging himself through years of treatment sometimes as ravaging as the disease, approaching death only to have death pull away, only to catch up to it again, like some long drag race in the desert. Throughout much of it he has been trying to make sense of his call toward God or Christ or some ineffable -ness that is not captured by the wan word “religion,” with its weight of institutions and hierarchies.

I am interested in ideas of god, in the faith that seems something innate in our species, though long though a nonbeliever myself. Is it this lack of a religious upbringing that makes me struggle so to understand what he’s saying?

The writing itself also requires me to untangle sentences, to consider asides, to parse the meanings of words. He does have a tendency toward long sentences that take some effort to track. He also speaks at times in koans. For example, he used the word “contingency” several times, including in one gnomic statement early on that God is contingency. Which made me have to look up the word, as I’ve only used it with regard to plans-made-just-in-case, also known as Plan B. Which made me think of W.C. Fields — isn’t he the one who took up religion on his deathbed just to hedge his bets? But it turns out I had misunderstood contingency as meaning the plan itself, when in fact it’s the stuff that transpires such that Plan B is called for.

Contingency is a possible future event or circumstance, unpredictable, chancy, possibly fortuitous. It’s also, philosophically, “the absence of necessity; the fact of being so, without having to be so.” (That’s Random House Dictionary’s wording.)

Oh. Well, no wonder I’m confused. But of course I’m confused.

There’s nothing like the fact of one’s death to change perspective, I imagine, particularly from how one thought one would feel in the face of one’s death. The brief segments that make up the book were written over the course of years, at it has been years since he was diagnosed, years of treatment, years of the disease in abeyance, years of it breathing down his neck, years of a soul’s dark night, God as dark knight, as nothing like that at all. There is no arguing with a dying man, so if wants to speak confusingly about his wrestling with ideas and needs, saying the unsayable in the abstruse, well, there we are. Contingency is from a late Latin word meaning befall. Indeed.

He also has many interesting things about art and writing. And these I cleave to. About some poets and poems, he says they are: “…making a thing at once shine forth in its ‘thingness’ and ramify beyond its own dimensions…What happens is some mysterious resonance between thing and language, mind and matter, that reveals–and it does feel like revelation–a reality beyond the one we ordinarily see.”

He talks about the best art finding “multiple dimensions in a single perception.”

Regarding the amateur and the artist, he says this about photography: What the amateur offers, often poignantly, is “a chopped-off piece of life. An artist…makes you feel just how much missing life is contained within a given image: it is as if the image is surrounded with, enlivened and even created by, the invisible, the unknowable, the absent.”

But the final chapters and segments become more and more achingly, confoundingly, terrifyingly beautiful. I think of Rilke’s terrifying angels. In these passages Wiman is transcendant.

Here are some excerpts:

“It is not some meditative communion with God that I crave. What one wants during extreme crisis is not connection with God, but connection with people; not supernatural love, but human love. No, that is not quite right. What one craves is supernatural love, but one finds it only within human love.”

“To fling yourself into failure; to soar into the sadness by which you’ve lived; to die with neither defiance nor submission, but in some higher fusion of the two; to walk lost at the last into the arms of emptiness, crying the miracles of God.”

And this: “Word after word ekes out of me as if I were in some bare, wasted place scraping myself forward, as if there were a ‘forward,’ as if I did not end up every time on this same circle circumscribing all I do not know.”

I was enamored of his words about writing and poetry, and these beautiful sentences of his experience. I felt in some ways I have failed him in my obtuseness with regard to his meditations on “belief.” He has been working so hard to communicate his sense of God.

It wasn’t until I came to the very end of the book, ironically, that I began to begin to begin to understand what he was saying. And it was by way of a poem. That old unsaid saying it best, the great expanse beyond the punctuation opening out:
My God my bright abyss
Into which all my longing will not go
Once more I come to the edge of all I know
And believing nothing believe in this:


Easy on the Eyes; or, Book Report on Recent Reading

I find myself in the midst of some terrific reads right now, piles of jewels of books that I’m rolling around in like Midas.

Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass is a gentle murmur of profound wisdom, the breeze ticking the corn leaves, quaking the aspen as this botanist and member of the Potawotami people braids together different ways of knowing. I’m taking small bites of it, rare for me, a voracious eater. But it’s the proper way to absorb this book.

Ruth L. Schwartz’s Miraculum is poems of close observation, of some duende, and the intimacy of conversation with an old friend. I love encountering books whose authors seem like someone I’d like to know.

Bruce Beasley’s All Soul Parts Returned is quick becoming a new favorite, sprawling, witty poems considering the soul and the sanity, tweaking the sacred mutterings of catechisms. Love his work, which always makes me laugh and be amazed at his creativity.

Lucia Perilla’s On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths is so full of life, often wry, vivid. Mortality is much on the mind of these lively poems, so it was especially startling for me to learn that this wonderful poet I just discovered died a few years ago.

David Sedaris’s new book Calypso is funny and poignant, as we spend time with his wacky family whom he loves to the bottom of his twisted little heart. I am reading more and more slowly, as I don’t want this book to end.

And my guilty pleasure: I read Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island in two days. It’s been a while since I indulged in a page-turner and it was worth it.

Singing the Body Electric; or, Thoughts on Death

“But there is something about time. The sun rises and sets. The stars swing slowly across the sky and fade.” (Madeleine L’Engle)

And someone is born, fumbles around for a lifetime, then dies. It’s no wonder so many of us assume time is linear, that there was a beginning, will be an end. But other worldviews understand time as something other than linear; circular, perhaps, or inextricable from situation, from place. I am interested in place, in our connection to place, how we find ourselves connected to a place or places. Stephen Muecke, who explores this in a book called Ancient and Modern: Time, Culture and Indigenous Philosophy, writes: “Many indigenous accounts of the death of an individual are not so much about bodily death as about a return of energy to the place of emanation with which it re-identifies.”

I’m entranced with the idea of a “place of emanation with which an energy re-identifies.” When my body stops and the energy that resides within it wanders off, where is my place of emanation, where is the place with which my energy identifies?

That energy was embodied on the Atlantic coastal plain, near where silt-covered bedrock is exposed by flowing waters, a low-land, humid zone of hardwoods and laurel. But the consciousness that is me has long identified with a landscape of glacial forms, eskers and cirques, bouldered outwash and till, white pine, maple. Who knows what that pesky energy will have in mind. I swear I’ve also left pieces of myself like breadcrumbs on the beaches of Oregon, wind-whipped and wave spew-strewn, and tangled in the carpet juniper of Newfoundland, and Seine-side on a cement quay with the fallen linden leaves. What will my energy make of this? Can it collect itself or am I forever scattered, ghostly traveler, fractured energy brooding on deluge and erosion and the growth of new seeds and old mushrooms?

I’m reminded again of Olivia Laing’s lovely book To the River. She wrote this: “The tenacity of our physical remains, their unwillingness to fully disappear, is at odds with whatever spark provides our animation, for the whereabouts of that after death is a mystery yet to be unpicked. What is this world, really?”

And this, from Ruth L. Schwartz’s “Ode and Elegy in One Flesh”:
Body, you hold us like a lit match
to the skin of life.
Yet when all we’ve been and done and lost
comes home to rest in us,
then rises, moves like ragged herds
grazing every inch of field,

you are what we love.

Exit Stage Left; or Writing the End of a Memoir When Life Goes On

I kept hearing about it, but as I’m already pretty accepting of the idea of death, I thought I didn’t need to read it: Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande. But I’m so glad I did read this thoughtful and poignant meditation on life and what matters.

In one section, Gawande discusses an experiment that indicates that our experience of pain and our recollection of pain have an odd relationship — that we remember the worst and the end but not the duration of the whole thing, nor of the worst part. And if the end of the painful experience is less painful than expected, the memory of the whole thing is skewed positively, not matter how long and how bad the worst part was. And vice versa. He thinks about that research in light of a person’s recollection of his or her entire life.

He wrote: “In the end, people don’t view their life as merely the average of all of its moments….For human beings, life is meaningful because it is a story. A story has a sense of a whole, and its arc is determined by the significant moments, the ones where something happens….Unlike your experiencing self–which is absorbed in the moment–your remembering self is attempting to recognize not only the peaks of joy and valleys of misery but also how the story works out as a whole….And in stories, endings matter….When our time is limited and we are uncertain about how best to serve our priorities, we are forced to deal with the fact that both the experiencing self and the remembering self matter. We do not want to endure long pain and short pleasure. Yet certain pleasures can make enduring suffering worthwhile. The peaks are important, and so is the ending.” (This is, of course, the whole point of his book.)

I think about this in terms of writing memoir. A memoir must end, yet the writer lives on. Which means a reckoning must take place. The initiating impulse behind a memoir might be: look at what happened to me. But the end can’t rest at: but I survived. Nor can it be: and here’s what I learned. That’s too pat.

It occurs to me that the question Gawande and the people he has learned from suggest we grapple with at the end is relevant to the memoir too: What is your understanding of your situation? What is important to you now; that is, what are your fears and what are your hopes? Those questions allow a terminally ill person to write the beginning of the ending of their lives. Of course, things can go awry at any time, and their choices are very limited. But in that limitation is a freedom.

The memoirist also has limitations in how to craft an ending — the author is alive, life is still unfolding, lessons have been learned but other lessons slipped by, patterns were detected as others came to be random strings. What is important, what are your hopes, what are your fears?

There is a tendency to look back at the past from the present and see patterns or currents. But a good memoir can’t be so revealing of pattern. Olivia Laing in To the Riverwrote this: “…the future is by its nature contingent and to read every event in terms of what is yet to occur disjoints the moment in which life is lived, divesting it of that uncertain, glancing quality that is the hallmark of the present.”

To write memoir is to make an art of that re-understanding the past in terms of what happened later, but to write a good memoir is to inject too that “uncertain, glancing quality” into the narrative of events.  And then to craft an ending we can all live with. So to speak.

Let Us Now Praise; or Word Power

Paris’s Pantheon is devoted to honoring the Republic’s “great men”…and Marie Curie. By now there are some other women, finally. In the crypt lie the remains of defenders of the Republic; soldiers many, and statesmen, but also scientists, and, of great interest to me, writers. The Pantheon in some ways is devoted to the power of words, words that roused the citizenry, words that safeguard  laws and rights and philosophical ideas of how to be citizens, words too that rendered by imagination tell stories and orate poems that stir us and remind us of the best, and the potential worst, that lies within us. In 100 years, if we’re still here, we humans, whose words will we still be quoting? Who will be our great writers who by their ideas and imagination will safeguard our humanity?


You Must Remember This; or, On the Impossible Past

My mother has lost most of her memory, so any bits and pieces of her history or family history are beyond reach now. But memories are tricky things anyway, murky, half-imagined, subject to distortion over time. I think of those fading Polaroid pictures, blotchy and pale with age. A friend was telling me about her own mother’s memory blotches. When asked about a photo in her possession, some years ago this woman had told a startling family story. Now, when the photo turned up again, she denies knowing who it is, and when her children told her the story she told, she says she had no idea what they are talking about. So was it true, then? Or had she misremembered then, or has she forgotten now? They will never know.

So much of the past is only what we think we know based on what we remember, or think we remember. The past is a fun-house maze of stretchy mirrors and blind corners.

In Q.M. Zhang’s book Accomplice to Memory the author is frantically trying to piece together her father’s past as his memory fades into dementia. The stories he once told, stories she had grown up with about who he was and how he came from China to the US, he had begun to retell differently. Had he lied earlier, was this closer to the truth? Soon he would not remember at all.

In the face of uncertainty, the author blends in this book recounts of her conversations with her father past and present; fictions of her imagination of what her father must have gone through, fleeing China after the Nanking massacre to start a new life in the US; recollections of her own childhood with this man eager to fit into his adopted home, and her own travels back to China to try to understand. She also adds to the book the closest she can get to fact: photographs — of China at the time of her father’s life and departure, of family members.

But what do photographs really tell us but of one perspective on one briefest moment: this person was on this streetcorner, the wind blowing a pale skirt, a street sign half-readable. You can almost smell whatever the street vendor is selling in the background.

But you can’t. The past is impossible.

I keep thinking about these shadow boxes made by a woman who splits her time between Alaska and Maine. I can’t tell you exactly why this book and these objects are connecting in my mind, except maybe at how we hold onto objects to try to hold on to the past. Margo Klass makes beautiful boxes and altarpieces that contain a few carefully chosen and set objects, sometimes creating windows in the top so light can strike the objects in certain ways.

These works seem to have something to say to me about memory, the way a place lingers through objects and light, are lit by the light of your moment with them. But you cannot return to that place in that moment. It’s all gone, as is the person you were then, and as will be someday your recollection of what or who brought you to that place and why.

It seems like our grasping for the past should teach us something about the present. But it never does.

Zhang, Q.M., Accomplice to Memory,

Margo Klass,

Top to Bottom: or, Reading Good Stuff: Margulis and Pines

I am reading the essays of biologist Lynn Margulis and her son Dorion Sagan. As a biologist and peerer at the microcosmic, Margulis sees the world as divided basically into bacteria and everything else, and basically regards humankind as a big vehicle for the wily adventures of bacteria over time.

At the same time I’m reading the poems of Paul Pines, Jungian, fisherman, seaman, flaneur of NYC jazz clubs, Bourbon Street, the beaches of Belize, and the ideas of ancient philosophers and gods.

The juxtaposition is mind-whirling.

Margulis’s essays contain sentences such as: “Whether we are discussing the disappearing membranes of endosymbiotic bacteria on their way to becoming organelles or the breakdown within the global human socius of the Berlin Wall, we must revise this rectilinear notion of the self, of the bounded I.”

Here is Pines: “Father//cross my fears inside the lotus/move me to grace like a swallow/my soul is an anagram show me its shape/I am not who I am”

I love Margulis’s large view of time and life, and her unromantic and yet appreciative consideration of humankind, our cells plodding along, our genes unraveling and reraveling. “Thinking, like excreting and ingesting, results from lively interactions of a being’s chemistry,” blandly states an essay by Margulis, Sagan, and scientist Ricardo Guerrera. So there it is, all my lines towards poems, my strategies toward publication, hopes and dreams, all just a bunch of elements having fallen off the table of elements and rolling around inside of me.

But I love too that Pines enshrines in his poems our human imagination, the gods we’ve conjured, the dreams considered, the ways in which we affect each other, we tender bacteria-vehicles, we wayward chemistry experiments. He writes:

talked about
a unifying idea in Nature
the way Aquinas did
an uncreated Creator
about space
generating itself
out of itself

the way Nicholas Cusanus
did a circle

whose center
is everywhere…

and now we know
what they meant
may still be detectable
at the moment
of creation
as a broken symmetry
that eventually comes to rest
in a symmetry
so sublime
it contains
the death
of every atom
and every star
and unites us
even as we speak

I read for this. I read for this kind of shoving around of my perspective on life, this dizzying shift of the telescope’s scope, skin of a hand, pocked and creviced as a planet, and dust of star, plumed, fingered. The ridiculousness of what we are; the sublime. This is the grounded and the heavenward, this is literature of what we are, and of the best we can be.

Margulis, Lynn and Dorian Sagan, Dazzle Gradually, Chelsea Green, 2007.
Pines, Paul, A Furnace in the Shadows, Dos Madres Press, forthcoming.

What the what; or, Reading Siken’s War of the Foxes

I’m reading the poems of Richard Siken and am totally intrigued but am unable to identify why exactly. The poems in War of the Foxes are mostly about painting; not about particular paintings necessarily but the process of painting. I guess I’m finding it very interesting to feel a mind at work, roaming among mind, eye, object, intention, query. I’m not always tracking the logic of the poems, not always coming away at the end feeling like I’ve seen something differently or had myself altered in some way. But along the way with many of the poems, I’m transfixed by the playing out of the poem down the page and in the mind. I had not heard about his work before I read the Glück essay that heralded his Yale Poets Prize collection Crush. I have not read Crush, and this work feels very different from what Glück cited in her intro, poems that felt catapulted, urgent. This book is careful. Odd. It’s somehow inspiring me. I keep catching ideas of my own out of the corner of my eye as I read his poems. Much of the book feels like that random, disconnected, scattershot approach that I hate in contemporary poetry — but then there are these moments that ring some gong in me. Something mysterious trembles in the disconnections. Damn. What’s going on here? These are philosophical poems, poems of consideration, of why and wherefore, mixed with birds and colors and foxes and sky, blackbirds and twigs, poems of what on earth are we doing here. That’s my question too. It all gives me paws…

Ready; On Reading and the Pursuit of Happiness

I just watched the Netflix documentary about Joan Didion. Several things struck me. One was how swiftly Joan Didion’s face lapses back into loss, her large eyes oceans of exactly the darkness that grief is, the slash of her mouth across her lined face, the bizarrely flung movements of her hands toward the interviewer, her nephew, as if they were living another life from her face, as today I look at one window and see a twinkle of snow flurries but through another window a blue sky. But the other thing that struck me was the shots of the book shelves — when the documentary mentions one of Didion’s or her husband’s books, the book itself is often depicted on a shelf with other books, some contemporary with the mentioned book, some older, some classics. A life of reading was depicted here, even more so perhaps than a life of writing.

I’ve also been looking through Maira Kalman’s And the Pursuit of Happiness, which is a year in her life of monthly blog/cartoons thinking about the US presidents and the concept of Democracy. Her two drawings of the crowds of fluttering flags on the mall for Obama’s inauguration make me sad. (I think too of, in the documentary, Obama protective and carefully shepherding tiny Didion onto the stage for her medal.) I love Kalman’s picture of a pink chair piled with some of the many books in Jefferson’s library, preserved in the Library of Congress. What incredibly well read and thoughtful people were Jefferson, Adams, Benjamin Franklin, so many of those old “fathers,” for all their faults and contradictions. (Am I still allowed to say that out loud, or is the zeitgeist overwhelmingly bloody-minded about flawed white men?)

Kalman’s curiosity and drollness and interest in US history reminds me of Sarah Vowell’s dear and hilarious meditations on her various historical obsessions. I would like to have them both over for dinner. Throw Didion into the mix, and I’ll just stay in the kitchen and eavesdrop.

The house of my dreams has a wall of white built-in bookcases surrounding a picture window. In the dream, I’ve read all the books. So it must be a dream. I’ve never read anything by Joan Didion, and of the books mentioned by Kalman in her perusal of the Jefferson library, I’ve read none. I’ve read many of the books in my house on its scattered and unseemly bookcases (no white built-ins, no picture window), but many look at me year after year, their covers fading and dusty. I’ve read few of the classics of Western tradition, and yet I’ve read a lot of all kinds of books. (Perhaps my downfall is that I love to re-read.) (Well, one of my downfalls.) My mother, in the days of library card catalogs, used to, for a while, go into each letter of the alphabet and randomly choose a card and read that book, whatever it was, a biography of an obscure historical figures, a translation of short stories from the Congo, a TV repair how-to book. I appreciate and share that magpie approach to reading.

Whenever anyone asks me how I became a I writer, my reply always begins with the fact that I was always a reader. Reading indeed is fundamental, that is, pertaining to a foundation. I love that our country, as wildly flawed as it is, was founded on principles developed by a well-read group of people, as wildly flawed as they were. May we as a people remain an open book.